Hannah Glasse was the author of the most influential English cookbook of the eighteenth-century. It was important in England. And it was important in the English North American Colonies. Although The Art of Cookery Made Plain & Easy was first published in 1746, it was still in print in the United States well into the nineteenth-century. This would be similar to a cookbook from the 1930s and 1940s still being popular today.
Hannah Glasse was credited with a recipe for hare that began, “First, catch your hare.” In fact, she never wrote that, which is too bad, because I think it is the catchiest, and in some senses, most profound recipe opening in the English-language cookbook literature. For me, in terms of literary merit, it is a recipe opening that stands up there with Melville’s, “Call me Ishmael.”
Mark Twain is credited with many statements he never made. I think of it as a mark of respect for Hannah Glasse that this brilliant opening line was credited to her. Hannah Glasse’s stature was so great, that while she didn’t write the immortal words attributed to her, her name gave the expression gravitas. It was widely known in nineteenth-century England. People found meaning in it and used the expression in both public and private writing, and presumably, in conversation. The phrase is also inherently poetic.
The meaning I’ve long given it was as a reminder that the best cook spares no effort to supply her table with ingredients known by her to be the best. As such, First catch your hare, speaks to our culinary culture’s newfound drive to carefully source our dinners. First, grow your lettuce. There is support for this reading in “The Hare: Natural History,” by Hugh Alexander Macpherson, 1896
‘First catch your hare,’ Now this I say in sober earnest. It is not a misquotation from good Mrs. Glasse, who neither made use of the words so often imputed to her, nor the sentence which commentators have ingeniously substituted, ‘first case your hare.’ If we consult the ‘Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy,’ we find that what Hannah actually wrote was, ‘take your hare when it is cased.’ No: I use t he old saying to show that first and foremost there is great deal of choice of the animal for the table, for in plain truth there be hares and hares. Importation from abroad has brought all sorts of game — the subject of our discussion among them — into the London market, and if the question be one of purchase, the exercise of a wise discretion is absolutely necessary. Happy are those who either kill their own hares, or receive them from friends in the country, for concerning such there need be no uncertainty. The only alternative is to make a personal friend of your game-dealer, and place your case entirely in his hands. As I hope presently to show, is is in a position to know where his hares come from, how they were killed, and the day on which they ought to be eaten. (p. 237)
Charles Darwin, in a letter to Asa Gray (1866?) infers knowledge of the expression,
But all this is rather cooking my hare before I have caught it. First Catch Your Hare (in Letter), Maurice Newkirk; S. S. Schweber, BioScience, Vol. 28, No. 11. (Nov., 1978), p. 680.
It is in this sense — counting chickens before they’ve hatched — that the expression was most commonly used. An early use of this sense was published in the literary journal of Byron and his circle, “The Liberal: Verse and Prose from the South,” 1822,
The author proposes to tell the history of two foundlings: — is it very unreasonable to find them first? It is not this rather a very legitimate application of the old rule, “first catch your hare?” (p. 359)
“‘First catch your hare,’ says a great authority, ‘before you cook it.’ On the same principle, you must first catch you bills of exchange before you discount them…” The Bankers Magazine and Journal of the Money Market and Railway Digest, Vol X. London, 1850, p. 451
And in a work on history, “The Parraná: With Incidents of the Paraguayan War ….,” 1868, By Thomas Joseph Hutchinson.
This is the sum and substance of the Triple Alliance Convention as it stands; and I only desire to remark on it, that its concocters seem to have shut their eyes to the most important item in Mrs. Glass’s receipt for hare-soup: — ‘First catch your hare!’ (p. 302)
“First catch your hare” seems to have been a turn of phrase that needed to be. In a lighter vein than that of bills of exchange or military alliances, I offer, without further comment, this diversion from a mid-nineteenth-century American novel:
She rose from her delicious sleep, and put aside her soft brown hair — That is to say, she took it from her toilet-table, where it lay in a tangle with cologne bottles and pin-cushions and crimping irons, and put it aside for her maid to brush.
‘Before dressing your hair you must first catch your hair,’ as Mrs. Glass (sic.) suggests in her most excellent cookery book. The maid had no trouble in doing this, for it lay ready at hand. The Wickedest Woman in New York,” 1868, by Henry Webb (p.8)
And I close this post with something beautiful, with James Joyce, Ulysses, in which the lovely poetry of the invention is given breadth to speak for itself.
But there are people like things high. Tainted game. Jugged hare. First catch your hare. Chinese eating eggs fifty years old, blue and green again. Dinner of thirty courses. Each dish harmless might mix inside. Idea for a poison mystery.